Kipling's Nightmare

The only thing worth remembering about Zulu Dawn is in its closing minutes. A warning is issued about what comes of Colonialism and the triumphant Zulu warriors sing as they walk away from a day full of bloodshed and arrogance. The chant, an exuberant victory cry, is infectious. It hints at a culture capable of great beauty and community, which goes some way toward thwarting the film's depiction of the Zulus as violent and unknowable. The other. Even if the villains are the un-empathetic British, as represented by sweltering, loathsome Peter O'Toole, the Zulus are never more than abstract. What colonialists always fail to recognize is that once you call a land home, no force on heaven or earth can change that. The music that serves as a coda to wholesale slaughter is a haunting reminder of spiritual ownership. Natal belongs to the Zulu (as Vietnam did to the Vietnamese) just as this song could come from the mouths of any other civilization. The film falters for a number of reasons, but not giving the Zulu a point of view, or even much screen time before they start taking back the land from the hopelessly ill-prepared British is one of its biggest. It wants to sympathize with them, but that's beyond the film's limited means. It fails to realize that Cy Endfield's Zulu had already quietly done that.

Not that anything else about Zulu is quiet. From John Barry's menacing, insistent march to the sounds of crackling rifles echoing through the arid planes of Rorke's Drift, Zulu plays heavy on the ears. Until this moment in art history, white audiences will have read about the faraway corners of 'darkest Africa' in Kipling and Conrad and seen it in photographs, but never before could they hear the sound of Africa. The film that kicked off the 50s 3D boom was a jungle-bound adventure about rogue lions called Bwana Devil. Having your personal space invaded by big cats was a strong enough advertisement for the technology that it carried the idea into craze territory (that they represent Africa, barging into the American movie house, a heretofore safe, white space, must have been equal parts enticing and terrifying). Kipling would surely have approved. It turned fear into a carnival ride and a continent into a sideshow stage. The narrative was for the taking and Africa could replace the old west as the white man's new frontier. After Zulu, films like Cornel Wilde's survival horror The Naked Prey, itself based on a tale originally concerning Blackfoot Native Americans, become possible (Imagine studios allowing that to be shot in 3D). If Zulu Dawn is the ugly, artless antithesis of the idea of Africa as a white man's sandbox (it almost feels like Italian exploitation, with its aimless miserabilism and grey direction), Zulu is a compromise, trying to respect both sides of an intractable conflict, trying to understand a whole host of national mindsets. Besides the Zulu warriors whose chief subscribes to notions of pride and fair play, there are Swedish missionaries, the wounded swiss corporal in the Natal Native Contingent, the Boer advisor who helps the British understand their Zulu enemies, and the Welsh and English men who make up the regiment. The Welsh look down on the Swiss and the English, who piss right back at the Welsh. And among the whites only the Boer considers the Zulus smart enough to be the formidable adversary they are. The Boer officer seems to understand that his hatreds are out of his hands, making him the most stubborn party. The missionaries are meant to be the voice of reason, of conscientiousness. They're dismissed not long after the fighting starts. There is no place for reason at Rorke's Drift, which quickly becomes host to a cacophonous din of violence and disarray. 

Which may account for a Swedish man of god being played by English man of drink Jack Hawkins. Hired no doubt because of the chapped velvet tenor of his voice, Hawkins begins calm but shaky, whispering to daughter Ulla Jacopson of the Zulu: "They are a great people," completely unaware that he's giving everyone the benefit of a doubt they haven't asked for. As he slowly realizes that neither the English nor the Africans will relent, he shouts into the howling wind, growing more desperate and drunk by the moment. The other voice of dissent comes from cock-eyed surgeon Patrick Magee, who takes particular glee in dressing down his charges. War is a disgusting business and he sees the officers as pigs splashing around in the muck of human failure. His slithering diction has stayed with me since childhood "Damn you Chard! And all you butchers!" his Northern Irish brogue drying out his 'R's and elongating his 'U's. Their voices together share the same qualities as the soil, as obverses Welsh private Thomas, "No moisture in it, nothing to hold a man in his grave." No surprise that their words aren't heeded. Thomas and private Owen (Neil McCarthy and Ivor Emmanuel) are the leaders of the soldiers' choir, and their dulcet harmonies stand in sharpest contrast to the sounds of war. They will be called upon to lead the men in song in defiance of the Zulu's war chant just as the light of a new day hits the combatants. The irony is that it'd take a true lack of imagination to prefer the Welsh song to that of the Zulu. 

That sound, that beautiful chanting, will likely stay with most viewers after every other detail has faded. It sounds like nothing else on earth, though the band TV On The Radio, keen-eared students of African music, have come close to achieving the peculiar tumbling whirlwind of voices. There is real power in these men coming in contact with this music, aware that the sound will be thrice as frightening to men who have no point of reference for melodies like this. It sounds alien to us because we hear it as they would. Endfield presents the incantations of the Zulus as possessing an otherworldly power, a sign of awed respect. In its opening moments we get the full majesty of Barry's score, which gives way to a familiar English (though technically Welsh) speaker: Richard Burton, patron saint of the theatre. With perfect diction and that irresistible, tightly coiled voice he informs us of the outcome of the battle of Isandlwana but he's drowned out by the sound of the aftermath. Then the Zulu singing overwhelms even that. Their song is the spirit of Natal itself and it hides in the hills. Jacobson will lose herself listening to it, completely unprepared for the overwhelming power and earthy sensuous it has. It represents a break from every myth she was told growing up with a priest for a dad. Their percussion, a ghostly rattling of spears against shields will announce the Zulu's approach before their astonishing first appearance, coating most of the skyline with their impressive numbers. A display that would shake any colonial dreamer to his core. It's the sound of the land saying "no". Kipling was in South Africa during the Boer War and wrote Poetry in favor of the Brits. Oh to have placed him within earshot of the rattling and singing. The warriors are coded with the same menace as the giant ants of THEM! or the distant drummers of I Walked With A Zombie and they are suitably terrifying when they first appear rattling their weapons up close like a thousand intruders knocking on the door. Endfield's respect for their intimidation tactics is palpable. The song starts next, one man leading and the rest responding in shocking rapidity. Their voices cut through the air like a hatchet. That they're just a decoy is all part of the plan. 

"I rather fancy that he's nobody's son and heir now." There is no honor in dying in Zulu, just as in reality many of those involved never benefited from being given the Victoria Cross. In perhaps the cruelest instance the swiss Corporal Ferdinand Schiess in reality died on a barge back from South Africa after this incident and was buried at sea. The film needs to hold onto a modicum of romance and so spares us the worst of the tragedy of Rorke's Drift without losing the big picture. The British who have second thoughts about fighting, like the buffoonish cook, are killed first. It's still a fairly vicious worldview, but if you play with fire you can't drop the match on the rug. Never underestimate your opponent. That's the movie's overwhelming theme. The constant refrain, with some variation, "We'll make an Englishmen of you yet." Once the British stop trying to pretend they can change anyone's mind, and stop using that phrase, they fare much better. Its final use, in a raid on the sickbay so tense that it still makes me hold my breath, erases any lingering sense of pride in the uniform or the crown. The Zulu are too fiercesome to be cowed, to be converted. All these men can do is respect their might. Ditto Lieutenants Chard (Stanley Baker, his deep set eyes borrowed from some bird of prey) and Bromhead ("Introducing Michael Caine," fully formed), who start at loggerheads trying to determine who should lead the defenses. Chard resents Bromhead's privelege (Caine runs perfectly, as if swaddled in bearer bonds as a child instead of blankets), Bromhead Chard's brusqueness. They drop their pretenses and prejudices when the shooting starts. What the British have to do is find their own harmony to sing in. It isn't the singing of the early dawn choir that saves them, it's the shouting of Bromhead and Chard signaling the synchronized firing of their men, a strategy that undoubtedly saves their lives. Caine and Baker's voices propel through the sound of the zulu chanting to announce the next volley of gunfire. "Front Rank! Fire!" "Free rank! Fire!" "Fire." Caine's phlegmy howl and Baker's hoarse two-tone, wildly different war cries, working in time with the sound of gunfire. It's only this song that forces the chief of the Zulu to stop underestimating the small contingent of men who stood up to him. His reply is one final song of salutation, a sign of respect. And that in the end is all anyone in Endfield's world seeks. Endfield withholds judgment on these men until the final minutes, just like the chief. Their pettiness and pride will cost lives, perhaps their own. Endfield finds them at their lowest, too tired to indulge in their worst habits, framed in a burnt-down hospital in a composition that outstrips the best of The Searchers. They're awaiting what their enemy will do next, unable to give themselves credit for what they've accomplished. It is only here that they can be rewarded, when they're incapable of considering such an outcome. This is why Zulu endears. It rewards selflessness, cooperation and respect above patriotism. The sound of men trusting each other to survive rings in your ears. The rest is just noise. 

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